Children’s authors on Eric Carle: ‘He created readers as voracious as that caterpillar’

Authors from Julia Donaldson to Cressida Cowell pay tribute to the beloved author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who has died aged 91

The late Eric Carle has been hailed by fellow children’s writers for creating generations of readers as voracious as his best-loved creation, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Carle, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, left behind titles including his worldwide bestselling board book – about a caterpillar who eats his way through a week’s worth of food before turning into a butterfly – as well as The Very Busy Spider, The Mixed-Up Chameleon and Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me.

“Picture books are a child’s first art gallery, and Eric Carle – maybe more than anyone else – made the world aware of picture books as an exciting art form,” said Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo and former children’s laureate. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar is such a clever book. As well as the tactile element (all those holes!), it combines colours, counting and days of the week, and also manages to teach children about insect development – all that as well as being beautiful and funny. It is bound to remain a classic.”

Chris Riddell, the children’s author and illustrator, praised the “deceptively simple beauty” of Carle’s pictures, and the way his painted paper collage technique connected with children. Carle’s signature style came from bright tissue paper, stippled and smeared with acrylic paint, which was then cut with a knife and stuck on to white cardboard to form bold designs.

“Perhaps his greatest achievement, also wonderfully simple, was to introduce his readers at the earliest age, to the idea of the book as an object, by adding holes in the pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” said Riddell. “He created readers as voracious as that caterpillar, and gave them wings.”

Chris Riddell on Eric Carle
Chris Riddell on Eric Carle. Photograph: Chris Riddell

How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell, the UK’s current children’s laureate, said: “Writing picture books for little ones is like writing haikus for aliens – harder than it looks … The Very Hungry Caterpillar effortlessly combines counting, days of the week, and a child’s favourite subject – food – alongside Eric Carle’s gloriously simplistic and vibrant illustrations. No wonder it has such timeless appeal.”

Anthony Browne, author of classic children’s picture books including Gorilla, said he was stunned when he first read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, while on a graphic design course in Leeds.

“It was a simple, logical story for young children that seemed to break all barriers as to what a book could be. Here was magnificent art work, beautiful colours and in many ways an object closer to sculpture than literature,” said Browne. “It’s so tactile and I’ve never encountered a child who doesn’t love being involved in such a relationship between story and reader. It’s without doubt one of the best and most influential children’s books ever made.”

Published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been translated into more than 60 languages and has sold the equivalent of a copy a minute since it was published.

“I think that, in common with thousands of children worldwide, The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first book I fell in love with. A world of book lovers. Could there be a better legacy to leave the world than that?” said children’s author Emily Gravett. And Lauren Child praised his work as “[feeling] very immediate and very personal and I wonder if this is what creates that sense of there being no distance between you the reader and he the artist.”

Carle wrote and illustrated more than 40 children’s books, often about animals, insects and nature, tackling topics from quiet crickets to philosophical sloths. It was his father who introduced him to the natural world. Carle told the New York Times: “When I was a small child, as far back as I can remember, he would take me by the hand and we would go out in nature. And he would show me worms and bugs and bees and ants and explain their lives to me.”

Piers Torday, whose books include The Last Wild trilogy, said: “Carle’s great genius was – with just a few words and bold images – to present the seemingly everyday lives of animals as transformational stories of hope that even the youngest child can grasp. He established the natural world as a vivid wonder of brightness and colour from page one for so many lives. There are millions of people who owe their first experience, their first love of our planet’s endless diversity, with its sustaining powers of growth and renewal, to a 22-page board book. That is a remarkable legacy.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Broom to Zoom: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler launch new Covid tales
The author and illustrator of Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo have released more images showing their classic characters contending with the pandemic

Alison Flood

23, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Children’s laureates campaign for £100m a year to fix primary school libraries
Current laureate Cressida Cowell leads demands to ringfence funds to renew ‘deteriorating’ facilities that fail to appeal to students

Sian Cain

12, Apr, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Helen Oxenbury: 'I used to hide books from my children – I couldn't bear to read them again'
Ten Little Fingers, Clap Hands, Farmer Duck ... the pioneering illustrator talks to Lisa Allardice about her 50 year career and the real story behind We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

Lisa Allardice

21, Dec, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Eric Carle obituary
Illustrator and author of classic children’s books including The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Julia Eccleshare

27, May, 2021 @12:11 PM

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler on A Squash and a Squeeze - video

Author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler look back over their working relationship on the 20th anniversary of their first collaboration

Michelle Pauli, Richard Sprenger and Andy Gallagher

13, Feb, 2013 @9:14 AM

Article image
Invite only: step into Oliver Jeffers' secret art society
He’s best known as an illustrator, but Jeffers also paints portraits – though you have to get access to a secret ceremony to see them, and after a few fleeting moments he dips them in paint so they are concealed forever

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

18, Nov, 2015 @6:15 PM

Article image
Not just for children: 100 great picture books
Martin Salisbury’s stunning collection of the greatest picture books from around the world is a revelation for all ages

Kate Kellaway

06, Apr, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
OUP responds to Biff, Chip and Kipper book 'cottaging' controversy
Publisher says its books ‘are created with utmost thought and consideration’, after Twitter user highlights apparently dubious scene

Alison Flood

28, Sep, 2017 @10:55 AM

Article image
Quentin Blake to auction 'joyful' mother and baby watercolours
Pictures from illustrator’s personal collection will be auctioned for charity in July

Alison Flood

18, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
John Burningham, children's author and illustrator, dies aged 82
Burningham, who was married to fellow children’s writer Helen Oxenbury, created beloved picture books including Mr Gumpy’s Outing and Avocado Baby

Alison Flood

07, Jan, 2019 @2:51 PM